My Heart Goes Where the Wild Goose Goes
When Silvio was growing up in the Sacramento Valley the sky would darken with the flight of wild geese overhead. Perhaps millions of them made their way down from their nesting grounds on the tundra in the Arctic. But that was more than 70 years ago and things were different then.
Over the years the lands were drained and turned into farms growing wheat and rice. Silvio saw the flocks grow smaller and smaller until they almost disappeared altogether. Eventually he also moved away to live in the city, but he often thought about those times when the distant cronk, cronk of the geese would come drifting on the wind as the big birds swung down onto the wetland ponds.
Most of the wetlands in the Central Valley of California have disappeared, been reclaimed, and set to the plow. Now in the 21st Century about 1% of them remain, dotting the landscape from the Sacramento Valley in the north to the San Joaquin Valley in the south. Waterfowl does still return to winter in these areas at National Wildlife Refuges and State Wildlife Areas.
Thousands of Canada and Greater White-fronted Geese as well as Snow and Ross’ Geese fill the skies as they fly in to settle on the ponds and marshes of the Sacramento National Wildlife Refuge Complex. A six-mile auto route makes viewing the birds easy without disturbing them. Along with geese are ponds full of ducks; northern pintail, northern shoveler, American wigeon, canvasback, wood duck, gadwall, blue-winged teal, cinnamon teal, green-winged teal, mallard, ring-necked duck, and ruddy duck. Midway along the route is a barrier-free viewing platform, which is great for viewing and photographing the spectacle of geese rising off the water at sunrise.
The Wetlands Walk is a two-mile nature trail that takes you alongside marshes and ponds and some riparian woodland. Red-tail, Cooper’s, and sharp-shinned hawks are noticeable in the tall trees and sometimes long-eared or great horned owls show up. As you walk the trail you can keep an eye out for yellow-rumped warblers, tree swallows, and Nuttall’s woodpecker, as well as ruby-crowned kinglets, and golden and white crowned sparrows.
The refuge complex is made up of six separate refuges with Sacramento, Colusa, Delavan the easiest for viewing. Delavan can be viewed right from Maxwell Road. Colusa is located on State Road 20 and has a short 3-mile auto route where views of greater white fronted geese are exceptional.
In the San Joaquin Valley, the San Luis National Wildlife Refuge complex is comprised of San Luis Unit, Kesterson Unit, Merced National Wildlife Refuge, and the Grasslands Ecological Area. There is also the Los Banos State Wildlife Area. In these refuges, particularly at Merced, about a half million Snow geese winter and approximately 15,000 sandhill cranes feed on area farm fields and then overnight in the refuge. Merced also has a five-mile auto tour route that affords excellent viewing and there is a large viewing platform overlooking a marshy pond where shorebirds feed.
The San Luis Unit has a new visitor’s center. Outside is a sculpture of a rearing Tule elk. These small elk were once abundant throughout the San Joaquin Valley. Now a special enclosure houses a herd managed by state wildlife personnel. They are easily viewed from the Tule Elk Tour Route.
On the Waterfowl Route, keep an eye out for white tailed kites and numerous red-tailed hawks as well as Northern Harriers. Waterfowl resides on a variety of managed ponds that are bordered by rushes and tules and cottonwood trees. There are two walking trails, the Chester Marsh Trail and the Winton Marsh Trail where there is a large viewing platform. Snow and Ross’ geese, Canada and Greater white-fronted geese settle on the ponds while white faced ibis and American coots dabble for food in shallower waters. Woodland birds flit about in the trees that line the San Joaquin River that cuts through the refuge.
A bit further south just off of Interstate 5 is the Kern and Pixley National Wildlife Refuges, Kern has an auto tour route affording good viewing of waterfowl. And not far from these refuges is the Tule Elk Preserve where another herd is kept.
No one can deny that the historic numbers of birds and wildlife in this Central Valley area have decreased dramatically, however, it is still a viable wildlife destination that is little known but well worth visiting. These refuges are accessible and best of all, they are free!